The Challenges of Keeping Libya Together

The province of Cyrenaica is the latest region to have announced its intention to have greater autonomy in Libya. Being the birthplace of the Libyan revolution, this has drawn the ire of the fragile National Transitional Council in Tripoli. Asserting its control will involve firmer security control and a rapid transition to democracy.

By Ben Jackson for

On 6 March 2012, in a hangar outside Benghazi, civic and tribal leaders announced that the eastern province of Cyrenaica would seek autonomy from the interim government in Tripoli. The move was met with immediate condemnation from the National Transitional Council (NTC), charged with overseeing the country's transition to a stable electoral democracy, which branded the announcement as a foreign plot intended to divide the country.

The announcement, and the fact that the man chosen to lead the new autonomous council of Cyrenaica, Ahmed al-Zubair, is also a member of the NTC, will only heighten concern that Libya is now undergoing political fragmentation, as the NTC struggles to fill the power vacuum left by the demise of the Qadhafi regime.

Lessons in Leverage

The organisers of the so-called 'Congress of the People of Cyrenaica' were clearly hoping to present the call for autonomy as a grassroots movement reflecting the will of the people. To a certain extent this may be true. Criticism of the interim government has been particularly fierce in the east of the country. In January, protesters stormed the Benghazi headquarters of the NTC, demanding the sacking of Qadhafi-era officials and more transparency about how the NTC is spending Libyan assets. Yet it remains far from clear that there is any consensus on the issue of autonomy even in Cyrenaica itself. Following the announcement, demonstrators took to the streets of Benghazi both for and against autonomy, while in the eastern city of Tobruk, local leaders indicated their opposition to any kind of federal arrangement.

Indeed, the announcement made on Cyrenaican autonomy speaks more of political opportunism by a relatively small coterie of local leaders, designed to capitalise on broad disillusionment with the interim government and to better leverage concessions from the NTC prior to national elections in June. Indeed, the call for Cyrenaican autonomy may be seen in the context of recent moves made by other groups to consolidate their positions and increase their leverage over the weak interim government. Last month, representatives from almost 100 armed militias in the west of the country announced that they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and allow them to press the interim government for further reform. Here too, its leader was a member of the NTC, Colonel Mokhtar Fernana, suggesting that interim officials may also be attempting to strengthen their personal positions prior to the elections.

That the announcement of Cyrenaican autonomy was intended principally to leverage the interim government was also clear from the fanfare with which the announcement was made. Civic, tribal and militia leaders, accompanied by hundreds of supporters, celebrated Libyan federalism, while the international press were informed well in advance. This contrasts with the town of Misrata, which unilaterally elected its own governing council last month, simply presenting the interim government with a fait accompli.

The announcement was described by correspondents, rather weakly, as a 'declaration of intent'. Organisers were also careful to avoid any suggestion of Cyrenaican secession, and remained conspicuously vague about the exact extent of autonomy. Reports suggested that the new council would press Tripoli for autonomy in all matters except foreign policy; however there was no discussion of the massive oil reserves which lie beneath Cyrenaican soil. Instead, it was made clear that there would be room for compromise. When pressed on whether the new council would come under the aegis of the NTC, or be a rival to it, organisers stated that they had 'been in contact with people in Tripoli and told them 'come here and negotiate'... It should be through negotiation.'

Keeping Libya Together

The unilateral elections in Misrata and the call for Cyrenaican autonomy ultimately reflect the failure of the interim government step decisively into the vacuum left by the collapse of the Qadhafi regime. As the interim government has struggled to provide basic services and security, several regions, either through frustration or opportunism, opted to become self-governing, while armed militias frequently took responsibility for ensuring order and security. The pressure on the interim government to assert control and rein in these actors has increased as elections to a constituent assembly draw closer, and its ability to ensure a stable democratic transition comes under growing domestic and international scrutiny.

Faced with this pressure, the NTC has increasingly resorted to measures designed to win instant support and co-opt opposition. Late last month it announced a comprehensive package of economic concessions, including plans to distribute 2,000 dinars to every Libyan family and pay jobless former fighters for the past year. There are also plans to offer grants to students, thereby co-opting the younger generation that makes up the bulk of militia members. The message - that integration and cooperation are more profitable than resistance - is clear. However, by responding to dissent and disintegration by attempting to purchase loyalty, such concessions run the risk of encouraging further opportunism. The NTC must therefore resist the easy resort to financial cooptation, and demonstrate instead its ability to provide services and - above all - security, if it is to delegitimise those who might seek to leverage it.

There is some evidence that this is already occurring. At a graduation ceremony for police recruits held four days after the announcement of Cyrenaican autonomy, Libyan Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al stated that the police comprised 25,000 men and was now able to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Qadhafi regime. He then addressed the armed militias directly, calling on them to reconcile with the interim government or face confrontation. 'I tell them frankly:' he said, 'there is no excuse for you to carry out your security functions inside Libya. You must make yourself legitimate or these lions [the new police recruits], they will face you... All those people who do not have confidence in the Interior Ministry or the government, we tell them our answer will not be through statements or press conferences, our answer will be practical and we start today.'

This strategy of asserting the strength of the security services should prove a more sustainable approach than strategically dispersing money. However even here there are risks. As an unelected body, the NTC has always faced questions about its legitimacy. It must therefore be careful to assert itself without inflaming hostilities and undermining its increasingly-tenuous claim to represent the Libyan people. As he condemned the announcement of Cyrenaican autonomy, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil declared that he would defend the unity of the country 'with force', if necessary. It was a comment he was later forced to qualify by stating that he had not meant military force. The tightrope the NTC must therefore walk in asserting its authority is clear.

Prospects for the Future

The declaration of Cyrenaican autonomy represents a significant challenge for the NTC. Indeed, it was arguably a sign of the desperation the NTC now feels that its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, sought to brand the declaration a foreign conspiracy - a refrain heard frequently under the Qadhafi regime - in an attempt to discredit it.

The declaration is all the more significant as it occurs in the context of moves made by other groups to increase their leverage over an interim government widely perceived as weak and ineffectual. How the government chooses to respond to Cyrenaican autonomy may therefore determine whether other groups see value in attempting to leverage the government further over the coming months.

If the interim government cannot assert its authority over the country without resorting to financial concessions, the prospects for a smooth democratic transition will be slim. As June draws closer, the interim government will need to make a number of controversial decisions about the elections, including the relative representation each region will receive in the new constitutional assembly. If they feel themselves under-represented, or their demands unheeded, those behind the announcement on Cyrenaican autonomy may choose to withdraw their support for the subsequent elections and for the NTC itself. Such an eventuality would call into question the representativeness of the elections, and potentially the legitimacy of any resultant government. The NTC must therefore act decisively if it is to ensure a smooth transition to democracy later this year.

The views expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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